With the final results of the Copenhagen conference now apparent, simply understanding what has happened may take a little time. The science, economics and politics around this issue are all incredibly complex, and careful analysis of the aftermath is likely to emerge more slowly than the frenetic media cycle would like.
Although a detailed understanding cannot be rushed, perhaps a useful rule of thumb can be found in the widespread agreement before the conference that a good result would be “fair, ambitious and binding”. That is, it would fairly provide for the poorest countries, who have most to lose from extreme climate change. It would ambitiously strive for deep cuts in carbon emissions to keep temperature rises to a maximum of 2ºC (a shift that would still not be without significant threats). And it would be legally binding for all nations as a treaty under international law. Currently, it appears that none of those criteria were met.
For some, this will be reason enough to dismiss the conference as a farce. Many fingers will be pointed. Activists demanding radical change are likely to blame short-sighted governments and the vested interests of big business who are served (in the short term) by maintaining the status quo. Journalists looking to score easy points will probably calculate the carbon footprint of the private jets flying world leaders in and out. Sceptics who still think that climate change is a con, designed as an excuse for a tax grab by greedy governments, might attempt to read any political failure as evidence of scientific flaws. (Yet for such conspiracy theorists, it is worth noting how hopeless governments are at sorting out the details of their alleged nefarious plot. Compare this with the efficiency with which they managed to buy the assent of almost the entire field of climate science!).
However, before we cynically write off the whole exercise as a waste of time, let’s briefly consider what this gathering has already meant.
First, it has brought an unprecedented level of attention on a serious global problem. These UN climate change conferences have been running since 1992 and while previous gatherings at Kyoto and Bali received widespread attention, Copenhagen raised the bar. Diplomatic conferences don’t usually receive daily media coverage; this one made headlines every day for the last two weeks. Before the conference, “Tiger Woods” was the most frequent search item on Google, but “Copenhagen” mercifully gave us something to consider of a little more consequence than the sexual failings of a celebrity. Since truth and justice are more important than entertainment or titillation, this is a good thing.
The real needs of the world’s poorest are more important than the political needs of those in power.
Second, an outcome that is generally perceived to be inconclusive will not necessarily remove the possibility of a better outcome at a future meeting. Despite all the build-up, it was unlikely that a fair, ambitious and binding agreement was going to be reached this time. These gatherings will continue to happen (and would have continued even if a binding agreement had been reached) and unless leaders can somehow spin this as a success, there will continue to be pressure for a better outcome next time. While it might be embarrassing for leaders if these negotiations do indeed fail, that is better than locking in an ineffective “solution” just so they can score political points at home. The real needs of the world’s poorest are more important than the political needs of those in power.
Third, some of the lines of agreement and disagreement are a little more clear. This gathering was always going to be an attempt at a novel level of international agreement, and so was likely to involve a lot of argument about the best way forward between parties with very different agendas and situations. Bringing differences and tensions into the open may seem like a dangerous option in a world that does not see eye to eye on many things. Yet an increase in honesty with an increase in conflict is better than a friendly façade with festering resentment.
Each of these three judgements is based on Christian assumptions in which honesty and the possibility of genuine justice are more important than security or stability. Christians remember the story of Jesus’ trial before the Roman governor Pontius Pilate. Pilate had the power to execute Jesus, but Jesus said “for this reason I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.” (John 18.37) With his life at stake, Jesus continued to trust that seeking and speaking the truth are more important than personal security or social stability. Indeed, Jesus had earlier told another group who were threatening him that “the truth will set you free” (John 8.32), suggesting that honesty is not only an obligation but can be a liberating opportunity. Pilate, however, fearful of a riot, dismissed both obligation and opportunity, saying “what is truth?”, and condemned an innocent man in order to keep his job.
Whatever the outcome, the road ahead from Copenhagen will continue to provide opportunities to face the truth or be distracted by fear. Will we follow Jesus or Pilate?
Byron Smith is a CPX Fellow and is currently pursuing PhD studies at the University of Edinburgh.